top of page

Artist movement series: Abstract Expressionism

In the 1940s, the United States, as was much of the world, was reeling from the horrors of World War II. However, in contrast to most of their allies, America had survived the war unscathed in terms of damage to infrastructure.

By the time the end of the war came in 1945, they were the dominant military force in the world. But like their allies, they had suffered in terms of the human toll; soldiers came home with stories of terror that words simply did not convey.

Dissatisfied with the artistic movements of the day, American artists became influenced by the sudden influx of immigrants and their idea. European artists working in avante-garde schools of Cubism and Surrealism worked with their new American counterparts, giving birth to the first true American artistic movement: Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism transformed the art world in several ways, most notably in geography. No longer was Paris the centre of the art world; it was now New York City. Abstract Expressionists were highly influenced in particular by Surrealism as they worked to find a way to express their unconscious minds for the words they did not have.

Many of these artists were also influenced by Great Depression and wartime programs, specifically the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a government jobs program that helped give many artists their beginning.

Given the influence of their two global events on impressionable young artists, it became understandable why a new school was required to articulate the expansiveness of their human experience.

What makes Abstract Expressionism?

Abstract Expressionism began as a focus on process, the nature of application rather than the end product. And it did so on a grand scale.

The art critic Harold Rosenberg referred to the gestural movements of paint as “action painting.” Emblematic of this—and perhaps one of the most well-known names of Abstract Expressionism—was Jackson Pollock

In 1947, Pollock came about his method by flinging and dripping paint on unstretched canvases. Much too large for the easel, he would lay his canvases on the ground and walk around its edge, using large gestures of his brush hand, improvising his movements with what came to him at the moment.

Inspired by the scale of the works of Picasso, Pollock wanted bigger, more. In fact, in Europe, the grandness of the scale of works from Abstract Expressionists became known as “American scale”, a not-so-subtle nod to the United States’ rise to superpower status.

Pollock's Number 1A (1948)
Pollock's Number 1A (1948)

Paintings, such as Pollock’s Number 1A (1948), were usually unnamed and only numbered. To the artist, this forced his viewer to experience the painting as a pure, unfiltered form of expression without any explicit reminder from the artist as to its subject.

As Abstract Expressionism matured, so too did its techniques. Abstract Expressionists began to investigate the emotional range of colour.

Continuing the use of grand-scale painting, artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman started using large shapes of colour. In contrast to Pollock’s busy gesture-and-drip style, these were simple. But the dominant blocks of colour were every bit as shocking.

Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961)
Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961)

Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) is the most famous of these, breaking the record for the sale of a post-war contemporary piece, selling for over $86 million in 2012.

Rothko painted on a large scale, similar to his Abstract Expressionist counterparts. The large blocks of colour influence one another, and yet they are separated, never touching.

Of the necessity of painting on a large scale, the artist said, “I paint big to be intimate.” The idea was for these paintings to be viewed in smaller, enclosed spaces, giving the viewer the feeling of being encircled and forced to experience the work whether they want to or not.

The mark of Abstract Expressionism and beyond

The height of Abstract Expressionism continued throughout the 1950s, cementing New York City’s dominance in the new art world. But by the 1960s, Pop Art and Minimalism began to take root and grow as the new dominant art movement.

But that did not spell the end of Abstract Expressionism. It continued to mature as it moved out of the male-dominated sphere as artists like Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler grew into prominence.

Many artists also continued to paint in the style of this movement, regardless of whatever was in fashion at the time, owing to Abstract Expressionism’s in-your-face attitude and ability to be blunt about difficulties of emotional expression.

By Nathan Durec


bottom of page